When Ira Michael Heyman LAW ’56 adjusted his radio dial long after graduating, the voice he heard was unmistakably that of his Yale Law School buddy, Arlen Specter LAW ’56.
“I knew immediately who it was,” Heyman said. “It was his tone — the manner in which he spoke. He always had a way of presenting himself with a unique certainty and confidence.”
In recent days, that voice — charismatic yet pointed — has been prominent in the questioning of Supreme Court Chief Justice nominee John Roberts. As a five-term Republican senator and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Specter has not been one to always walk the party line. He led the aggressive hearings on Roberts, which concluded Thursday, and stands out from his party for his pro-choice stance on abortion and support of stem cell research.
Then again, his lifelong friends and Law School classmates say the Pennsylvania senator — who did not respond to requests for comment last week — has always been a sort of walking dichotomy: congenial with colleagues, but iron-willed and forceful as a politician; one of the Senate’s most liberal Republican, but a strong supporter of his party’s conservative platform. Even in 1953, as a young, recently married first-year law student at Yale, Specter demonstrated an intimidating rhetorical ability, but was otherwise a socially affable — and politically left-leaning — student.
“A man like [Specter] was born to be a lawyer really,” said Yale law professor emeritus Elias Clark LAW ’47, who began teaching at the Law School in 1949. “He has that analytical mind: sharp and articulate. I think he was a natural, and so he’s obviously going to flourish at a place like the Yale Law School.”
Reading, writing and rhetoric
Specter, who grew up in Pennsylvania and attended the University of Pennsylvania as an undergraduate, followed in his father’s footsteps and enlisted in the Air Force for two years during the Korean War from 1951 to 1953, earning the rank of first lieutenant. When he entered the Law School in 1953, during the waning years of McCarthyism, Specter, like most of his classmates at the time, had liberal leanings.
“At Yale, he was clearly a Democrat, and a liberal Democrat,” said Specter’s classmate and friend David Isbell LAW ’56. “I don’t think he was a flag-waving leftist, but he definitely started as a Democrat.”
In an class of talented aspiring lawyers, friends say Specter stood out. In the 1956 Yale Law Moot Court Championship, he took home the prestigious John Currier Gallagher Prize for excellence in the preparation of cases.
“He was a gifted, extemporaneous speaker,” said former New York State Court of Appeals Judge Howard Levine ’53 LAW ’56, who recalled watching Specter’s oral arguments. “He was a finalist in the competition with a very distinguished group of competitors. And Arlen won. He was just an excellent person on his feet.”
Other finalists bested by Specter included Norbert Schlei LAW ’56, who became assistant attorney general of the United States and Jon Newman LAW ’56, a senior judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.
During his time at Yale, Specter also took home an honor at the Super Prize mock trial. For the competition, aspiring lawyers were required to cross-examine Yale School of Drama students poising as witnesses and deliver opening and closing statements.
“Arlen went on to be a really wonderful trial lawyer, yet I never tried a case in front of a jury again.” Specter’s mock trial partner George Freeman LAW ’56 said. “He was a wonderful guy then, we hit it off, and we were quite proud of each other.”
Although Specter crushed opponents during mock trials and law competitions, many of his classmates recall him as considerate and friendly — a fact which might surprise his current political critics, who often characterize him as rough around the edges.
“I know, from what I heard second hand, that a lot of members of his [senatorial] staff are apparently terrified of him,” Freeman said. “But he never portrayed those kind of characteristics in law school. He always had a smile, he was always sociable with people, and those are the kinds of qualities I see now — the same old Arlen I’ve always known.”
Another classmate, Dallas Albritton LAW ’56, even remembered Specter as a “sensitive” person who always kept other people’s feelings in mind.
When he was not studying, Specter sang in a Law School a capella group, the Oversextet, and was an editor for the Law Journal.
Freeman first met Specter in the singing group.
“He does have, underneath a sort of serious exterior, a really wonderful sense of humor,” Freeman said. “It rarely shows itself in the trial lawyer mode, but it certainly does in personal relationships.”
Due to a somewhat segregated social scene at the Law School, Specter, who married Joan Levy (now Specter) the year he began Yale Law, spent most of his social time with other married students.
The small group, which included Stephen Pollak LAW ’56 and Levine, would have engaging discussions over lunch as part of what Levine termed the “brown bag club,” in which Specter was always an active participant, Levine said. No one in the group was particularly well-off financially, Levine said, and the lunches helped them save money.
“He was an enjoyable person, and a good storyteller,” Pollak said. “He was fun to be with, and since we were all interested in public affairs at the time, we talked about them.”
The couples would often get together outside the law school.
“I remember relating to Arlen and Joan with my wife, and we all socialized together,” Pollack said. “He had an outstanding wife, who made an outstanding career for her life.”
Joan Specter, who served as a Philadelphia Republican councilwoman for 16 years, was appointed by President Clinton to the National Council of Arts in 1998. Her appointment by a Democrat once again spurred an accusation which had colored her husband’s political career in the past: He was labeled a “RINO” — Republican In Name Only — by critics within his party.
But Specter also angered many liberals during the 1991 confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas LAW ’74 for his harsh questioning of Anita Hill LAW ’80, who had accused Thomas of sexual harassment.
Following his Law School graduation, Specter quickly became a prominent Philadelphia lawyer before serving as assistant Philadelphia district attorney in 1959.
Soon after, he entered the realm of federal politics, gaining national fame in 1963 when he was appointed as assistant counsel to the Warren Commission, charged with solving the mystery surrounding President Kennedy’s assassination. During deliberation, he became a proponent of the lone gunman theory and the author of the single bullet theory, which concluded that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. Both theories were eventually adopted by the Commission.
In 1965, he began his political career, running successfully for Philadelphia district attorney. It was then, his classmates say, that he made the switch that would define his career. He became a Republican.
“The way politics worked in Pennsylvania at the time he decided to run for public office, he had no choice,” Freeman said. “Even if he wanted to run as a Democrat, there was just no way he could have got the nomination.”
Ready to step up his quest for political power, Specter ran unsuccessfully for Philadelphia mayor in 1967 and was defeated in his re-election bid for district attorney in 1973. He then lost primary races for the U.S. Senate in 1976 and for governor of Pennsylvania in 1978. In 1980, Specter finally staged a successful campaign for the Senate, following the retirement of Republican incumbent Richard Schweiker. He has served in the Senate ever since.
“I think he got a superb analytical training at Yale Law School, and he surely has used those tools in his Senate career,” Levine said. “He is considered to have probably the best legal mind in the Senate, and he’s got a very good, incisive mind. You can see that from his questioning of John Roberts.”
Specter’s duties as Senator would occasionally put him in contact with his law school classmates. Isbell, a staunch Democrat and a former leader of the American Civil Liberties Union, remembered Specter as having put his law school friendships before his Republican politics. Isbell said that Specter spoke on several occasions at politically left-leaning functions.
“Like many public officials, I’m sure he came just in time to give his talks, and then would leave immediately afterwards,” Isbell said. “But in each instance with me, he always waited at the door outside the meeting to hear what I had to say after he spoke.”
In 1995, Specter surprised many of his friends and colleagues by considering a run for president. Among the first potential supporters he gathered in Washington were his law school cronies.
“He got the bug to run for president,” Freeman said. “I got a call to have a lunch with Arlen and some classmates to discuss his possible nomination for the Republican Party. When he told us, we looked at each other and got this big smirk. Then one of us said, ‘We’d love to see you run, and we wish you were a Democrat, but with the Republican Party going so far to the right, we don’t think you have [much of a] chance.’ But we told him we’d help him anyway.”
Though his bid was unsuccessful, Specter has emerged as a leading lawmaker in recent years. Last year, he defied his critics on both sides of the aisle by becoming chairman of the Judiciary Committee.
Freeman feels that Specter’s leadership has helped him improve cooperation between both parties as much as possible in the last few weeks.
“There is a little better feeling up in Washington and throughout the country, and I commend Arlen for that,” he said.
But beyond the people-pleasing, Specter has been, above all, a maverick since his days at Yale. Specter battled several diseases in the early 1990s and recently completed chemotherapy treatment for advanced Hodgkin’s Disease.
A controversial figure in Congress, Specter’s perseverance personally and politically has not been questioned.
“In some ways, he has the same kind of personality that [Supreme Court Justice] Hugo Black did: people perceive him as being that kind of driving personality,” Freeman said. “He’s like a bloodhound, because once he finds the scent, he doesn’t lick his nose, he just runs hard after it.”